Amid the masses gathered in Parc Maisonneuve for the yearly “Run for the Cure,” a 5 kilometer walk/run aiming to raise money and awareness to combat breast cancer, one simple slogan stood out: “Save Second Base.” Despite the early morning and rainy skies that day, the large crowd was full of energy. Men and women of all ages wore signs stating their reasons for participating – many referenced their mother or grandmothers. One young man’s sign plainly read, “pour mon amour.”
Yet that first slogan, emblazoned on the shirts of a young group present at the race, is part of a widespread message in the marketing of breast cancer awareness – one that I find completely distasteful. An organization called “Save The Ta-Tas” sells t-shirts and products such as a lotion called “Boob Lube,” which is promoted as something women should use to enhance their self-examination experience. Additionally, Facebook campaigns tell women to write their bra colour in their statuses. I remember a commercial from several years ago consisting of a young, conventionally attractive woman in a bikini that called for us to “Save the Boobs!” The camera focused on her breasts and the men looking at them. Not one aspect of this commercial told us anything about any of the issues relating to cancer. Instead, we were simply told to care about breast cancer in order to save the breasts – never once mentioning how the woman who is suffering from cancer may be affected.
Breast cancer is one of the most common types of cancer amongst women. According to the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation, an average of 445 Canadian women will be diagnosed each week. Although it can occur at any age, the majority of those afflicted are diagnosed between the ages of 35 and 60 – not exactly the age of the youthful women shown in most advertisements. While I fully support raising awareness and money for research, I do not support the constant objectification of women’s bodies and the sexualization of a disease as a means to do so. These messages trivialize the reality of living with such an illness – a reality which can consist of unpleasant rounds of chemo, surgeries, and pain.
Breast cancer research is not about keeping boobs alive – it’s about keeping people alive. By focusing solely on breasts, we are taking attention away from the people who live with the illness. This message furthers the idea that a woman’s breasts are what make her worthy of attention, and that losing them is equivalent to (or maybe worse than) losing her life. Now, imagine how a woman who has just undergone a mastectomy feels when she is constantly being told that her breasts are what made her attractive as a woman. In addition, using images of traditional femininity devalues the experience of those who suffer from breast cancer but do not identify as female.
There are, in fact, ways in which these issues can be addressed without sexualizing the problem. The SCAR Project is one that can be seen online, in which photographer David Jay takes photos of young breast cancer survivors, showcasing their scars and imprints of the disease. These images are powerful, and demonstrate how breast cancer should be addressed by making the cancer patients themselves the focus of the issue.
Some may argue that, as long as this crude commercialization raises awareness, the ends will justify the means. But, while those who began these campaigns must have had good intentions, I don’t believe awareness through demeaning women is justifiable. We are not becoming any more aware of what it’s like to live with breast cancer. Instead, we are merely continuing the objectification of women in the name of a good cause.